The Arc of Life

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If a person does something every day for 100 years, shouldn’t they get really good at it? Shouldn’t they master anything they’ve been practicing this long? Shouldn’t life just get easier and easier with deeply ingrained knowledge and ability?

This was a recent parental postulation while driving my 93 year old mother to the hair salon. With a chuckle and a hmmph, Mom quickly responded “No, just the opposite. Everything gets worse!” Sequestered for an additional 15 minutes in the car, I pressed,  

Always enticed by an opportunity to expound, she explained that with the natural loss of sight, hearing and agility (comparatively speaking), “Everything gets harder. Much harder.”

Me: So, when do you think people peak, Mom? When are they at their best?

Mom: Around 75. That’s when everything still works, body and brain.

Me: Crap… that only gives me 15 more “good” years.

Mom: …Use ‘em or lose ‘em.

Settled in at the salon, I had a solid two hours to sit and ponder while Paul (the stylist) permed and pruned… two hours to assess the arc of intelligence… to meditate on the up-then-down momentum of mentality… to examine the arc of activity and the finality of the physical body.

I came to the conclusion that if: 1) the arc begins at birth, 2) we peak at 75 and, 3) we live to be 100, then the numbers indicate the arc to be heavily front-loaded; visually, like a roller coaster – up, up, up, and then, woooooosh - down a steep (slippery) slope, right to our certain death.  

But life doesn’t unfold in neat little visual frames, and the situation may not be quite that dire.

The bulk of life’s good times are imbedded in the upward trajectory… school, college, marriage, babies, and careers. Then, we reach the pinnacle, aka retirement, and it’s the beginning of the end. Despite our “active lifestyles,” body parts break and craniums clog after 65.

As an adult, I’ve been a part of Mom’s life since the mid portion of her upward ascendance on the arc and have therefore been present for many of the good times. I’ve also lived next door to Mom since she was 82 which makes me a participant by proxy in her downward woooooosh. On a daily basis, I bear witness to her proclamation that “Everything gets harder. Much harder.” I see it. It does.

One might ask, With all this sliding down the right side of the arc, what’s there to look forward to? The answer is - the best stuff!

At 93, the only thing Mom really frets over is unrelenting back and leg pain. In those moments, she can’t necessarily see the best stuff, but I can:

Mom is slower and more deliberate in everything she does, her intention being to avoid bodily harm. But the byproduct of her slower pace is that she now lives with the intention and presence of being that eludes so many of us youngsters.

Mom is wiser and more reflective these days, listening more than speaking, and doling out unexpected pearls of wisdom at the least expected moments; “I always say thank you for three good things whenever one bad thing happens.”  

Mom’s outlook on life is more positive than ever; I catch her smiling at a cat food commercial and envy her earned perspective. I may be on the downward curve of the arc, but I’m definitely not there yet.

Mom is satisfied. With everything. Though it can look like senior indifference at the outset, closer inspection makes it clear that she just doesn’t want or need or anything. Sometimes (ok, often) I default to frozen dinners due to a busy work schedule. When I bring Mom three delectable options, she invariably smiles and says, “I don’t care… you pick.” Hard as it is to admit, I get frustrated with this response until I acknowledge that she genuinely doesn’t care which dinner she eats, and will be satisfied with whichever one she gets.   

Mom seems to have mastered the last locus on the arc as well - acceptance. She lives in a never-ending no-judgment zone where all are welcome… come as they may and do as they might; she accepts people and situations for who and what they are. No back pedaling or second guessing, Mom goes with the flow of human foolery and frailty. An enviable attribute for sure.

Ten years ago, it would have been a stretch for me to say I truly understood what being present, satisfied and accepting in life really meant. Edging toward the apex of my own arc, I’m grateful that Mom’s shown me I still have awesome things to look forward to… I see that my lifelong quest for inner peace may take a little longer than I’d anticipated, but if I hold on during the descendance of my arc, I just may get there.

Emily Gaffney1 Comment